THE METAXOLOGICAL MEN – JOE CARSON SMITH & JAMES STRAUSS

“Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord” (Ezek. 13:5).

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Walking in the way of Christ is a learned activity. I came to understand Christianity best in the walk of Joe Smith and James Strauss, both of whom we lost in 2014. Joe as mentor and discussion partner (the conversation lasted some 38 years) initiated a theological conversation which became part of the warp and woof making up the fabric of my own thought. James Strauss reshaped the thinking of the generation that came under his influence in some 25 years at Lincoln Christian University where I studied. Joe and James exercised influence at a national and international level in the Restoration Movement. The Mission, to talk of God as we walk in the Way of Christ, was one that they balanced uniquely well in their generation. They understood that the talk (or the theology) induces and guides the walk (or the going and doing of the Gospel).

All walk and no talk (or activity aimed only at results and not guided by serious theological reflection) and you get the Church Growth movement which in its “seeker friendly” soft Gospel manifestation has become pervasive. The Church Growth Gospel as an obstacle to serious theological reflection was something both abhorred. Joe established a mega-church but understood that numerical growth needed to be backed up with theological depth and so he became the best educated preacher in our movement. He understood that a movement given over to the mechanics and pragmatics of “Church Growth” stood opposed to developing and preserving intellectual and spiritual growth. Jim infected his students with the desire to learn and many went on for further education.

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All talk (a disengaged or academic theology) and no walk and you get the sort of neo liberal biblical studies which has now infected the once conservative bastion of our seminaries. Conservative theologians are besieged and outnumbered by a liberal biblical scholarship driven by the very historical critical method they endorse. The best of modernity, as Joe worked out with Jacques Maritain and Jim with Kuhn and Popper, was the realization of a limit to reason pointing to the Word of Christ. For Joe this meant the “end of the historical critical method” as pronounced by Gerhard Maier and for Jim it indicated the end of the identification of truth with a methodology. They both fostered a theology that engaged the principalities and the powers of the age.

Among other things Joe published the Camelback Papers and sent a copy to every Independent Christian Church in the country. The papers included the self-indicting correspondence of a seminary president refusing a student’s thesis proposal questioning higher critical conclusions. His explanation of how only “highly educated academicians” could possibly make such critical and historical judgments hardly needed Joe’s explanation of the illiberalism of liberalism.

Jim’s orthodoxy may not have been clear to those who were confused by his engagement with philosophy, science, anthropology, etc. etc., but his grounding of knowing in the concept of world view was geared to withstand the fracturing of truth in the postmodern era. The orthodox legacy that has followed him at Lincoln is proof of this.

In the battle against the principalities and powers working havoc among us, as Ezekiel describes it, “the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing have gone up into the breaches.” The foolish prophets don’t really change from one generation to the next, which occurred to me in the last conversation I had with Joe. Through graduate school in the States and England, through 20 years in Japan, and 10 years teaching in Missouri, we talked theology. In the beginning I was pretty much an empty vessel. Our “conversations” mainly involved me listening but as the years unfolded I had more to contribute and in the final few years, as Joe grew weaker, I held up the conversation. In this last conversation, as I described what my students were encountering in seminary, Joe just nodded and said things have not changed.

Joe and Jim prepared me and many others to prepare yet others to talk of God as we walk in the way. Their lives were spent filling in the breach or gap (the metaxological or the place between) in the fortification of the Church. So perhaps in their death the gap they have left will not be overrun by the foolish prophets who have seen nothing of their kind.

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